Patrie intime de ma foi, (Intimate homeland of my faith,)
Dans une immuable assurance, (In an enduring assurance,)
Je veux vivre encore avec toi, (I still live with you)
Jusqu'au soir de mon espérance. (Until the evening of my hope.)
-Charles-Nérée Beauchemin (1850-1929), Québécois poet, "Patrie intime"
Claude Jutra: Québéc's Archaeologist Poet
It could be said that Claude Jutra is Canada's Orson Welles. I do not lightly make this claim nor do I make such a bold comparison to merely raise eyebrows. The analogy is not only apt because Jutra directed what is officially regarded as the best film ever produced in Canada, 1971's Mon Oncle Antoine, or because his follow-up film, 1973's Kamouraska, was an ambitious epic that wound up emasculated by its producers, much like Welles' follow-up film The Magnificent Ambersons had been, but also because Jutra struggled greatly towards the end of his life in producing work that he could call his own, striving to exist within the rapidly evolving world of filmmaking in both English and French Canada -- and as we all know, Welles' final decades were spent hustling for money to realize his sundry projects throughout decades when American cinema was often shaken to its core. Jutra's heart was buried so deeply in Québéc and his finest works were made for Québécois. He resigned himself to making television films for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the late 70's (1976's Ada and 1977's Dreamspeaker to name the two most widely known) during a self-imposed exile in English Canada. He immediately followed his brief television tenure by directing two compromised English-language features, particularly 1980's Surfacing, an ill-fated but nonetheless fascinating adaptation of Margaret Atwood's popular novel. The other was 1982's By Design, a now somewhat reappraised comedy about two lesbian fashion designers. He ended his career with one last francophone masterpiece in Québéc, 1985's La dame en coleurs, but is quoted to have said, "Sometimes I wonder: why are things easier for me in English Canada and so difficult in Québéc? Then I remember the answer: everything is more difficult for everybody in Québéc."
Jutra launched his career in cinema with a series of NFB-funded short films and documentaries (including the award-winning A Chairy Tale, co-directed with Norm McLaren) and completed his first feature film, the groundbreaking A tout prendre, in 1963. A tout prendre, seen now, fits more into the French Nouvelle Vague movement than most bona fide French New Wave films, and Jutra obviously owes much to those works, even though the film stands on its own two Canadian feet. By the time Jutra made his second feature, Wow (1970), which remains his most overtly political work, he was already something of a legend in Québéc. However, he was attacked throughout his career for what was perceived as a neglecting of a national cinema sensibility -- a cinema that would have more directly jostled Québécois out of its complacency. This brand of complacency is fascinating when you consider how the people of Québéc seemed to be getting impatient with their own complacency and were waiting for something to pry them loose from stagnation. Hence, there were bold cries for immediacy in cinematic intention.
Both Jutra's masterpieces, Mon Oncle Antoine and Kamouraska, were heavily criticized for situating their narratives deeply within an enclosed time period, rather than in the turbulent then-present, and as a result, the deep-seated politics of both films often failed to register in the cold light of day. What Jutra ventures to do is contextualize the current by depositing his stories in the safety of history. In the early 1970's, audiences seemed to prefer more didactically political and topical films by the likes of Denys Arcand, Gilles Carle and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, whose was identified by one critic in 1962 as "the Canadian incarnation of Godard". Mon Oncle Antoine is often designated as a "coming-of-age" film, but it is decidedly more of a tableau and a snapshot of a time and place than most coming-of-age films, which are more focused and resigned towards a single character, thus I find the designation facile and only somewhat accurate. As I will examine, many both now and at the time of its original release felt that the film did not fully exert or assert itself politically, and that its so-called "nostalgia" was ill-wrought. Of course, I beg to differ, strongly. Its nostalgia makes you want to actively participate in the film (i.e. climb into the screen), but this element is never made to be too precious nor does it obstruct our understanding of Jutra's political views concerning the past and popular memory.
Mon Oncle Antoine follows twenty-four hours in the life of a teenage boy named Benoit living in Black Lake, an asbestos mining town circa 1940. Kamouraska, at least in its 1983 director's cut, is a gorgeous-lensed three-hour period melodrama based on a bestselling 1970 Canadian novel by Anne Hébert, set in a frozen Québéc town of the 1830's and starring Genevieve Bujold, who plays a woman who has plotted with her lover to murder her husband. What is of note is that both films were based in some element of true incident and dug up remnants of a dark but halcyon past. Mon Oncle Antoine's primary location Black Lake was a key locale during the Quiet Revolution, and seemed to stand as a microcosm for the mistreatment of the working class under the Duplessis reign. Kamouraska is based on the real-life 1839 murder of Louis-Pascal-Achille Taché, and the story of the fictionalized events surrounding this crime can be taken as an allegory for the then-current tumult in Québéc, and a piercing assessment of a nation in denial of its past, in disgrace over its present and in doubt over its future.
Jutra could hardly be called apolitical. He was an ardent separatist who refused the Order of Canada, supported the Québéc sovereignty movement (which supported Québéc's right to exist as independent of Canada) and demonstrated against Duplessis during the revolution, and was also adamant in asserting two cultures and a French Canada's autonomy from English Canada. He hails from a liberal upper-class Montreal family who also vehemently opposed Duplessis' backwards-trained policies. However, Jutra tackles politics at a controlled distance in his films.
Martin Knelman, in his book This is Where We Came In: The Career and Character of Canadian Film, writes that "when Jutra tries to be overtly political, whether onscreen or off, you feel its a violation of something deep within his nature." In the same breath, Knelman continues, "Jutra's work isn't political in the same narrow, didactic terms as, say, Arcand's Rejeanne Padovanni or Michel Brault's Les ordres; yet maybe Jutra is political in a deeper way." This is exactly the case, and it could not be any more true. Jim Leach, in his book Claude Jutra: Filmmaker, notices that "Realizing that no form is ideologically pure, [Jutra] chose to work within existing forms, with the result that his films were rarely perceived as formally or politically innovative." I therefore will choose the path of political analysis of his works, even though this reading is only a single level.
What one must consider is, at this time in Québéc, to be political in one's cinema was the equivalent of being national and possessing the national branding of Québéc. I find Mon Oncle Antoine to not only be one of the best films, Canadian or otherwise, I have ever seen, but also one of the most intensely political films, even though its political statements are artfully camouflaged within an all-encompassing tableau of life in Black Lake, with a narrative intent on revealing larger and more revealing truths rather than limiting itself to the then-pressing topicalities; its ending is the young lead character's realization that things cannot continue in the muted manner to which the town has become accustomed. Benoit, for the first time, has learned to judge what he sees within his insulated, sleepy and dissipated world, and he is awakened to a harsh reality about the warped rhythm of routine of life in Black Lake. His now unforgiving eyes look upon his drunken sot of an uncle with a fierce sense of shame, and the film takes its title from the subject (the prosecuted) of Benoit's first-ever judgment. We are effectively set up for this revelation. Earlier in the film, the townspeople quietly but grimly accept the meager Christmas gifts thrown by the oppressive English-speaking mine-owner in a manner that suggests throwing swill to hogs. This all happens without so much as any measure of an expression of discontent from the miners and their families, who watch silently and guardedly as the boss passes through town in a sleigh haughtily puffing his pipe. They are clearly torn, simultaneously aware that any Christmas offering, even a pathetic trifle, is acceptable to the children who depend on it. It is our young hero Benoit who indulges in the only act of dissent.
As a presiding spirit over the film, we get not just Jutra the director but Jutra the actor, playing the role of Fernand, the taskmaster and bookkeeper of the general store owned by Benoit's aunt and uncle. Pauline Kael compared his presence in the film to that of Jean Renoir's presence in his La régle du jeu, writing, "While you are watching the movie, you realize that the spirit behind the movie is also present in the movie, in the performance of the director." The comparison is apt because Jutra the actor is certainly a presiding spirit but, beyond that, though, is the fact that, in the scene when Benoit catches Fernand and his aunt red-handed following an illicit tryst, Jutra allows his character to be the target of the boy's newly discovered judgmental eye, as well as allowing himself to be at least partly complicit in its first-ever unmasking. The allegedly non-professional actor Jacques Gagnon, who plays Benoit, has the film's finest bit of acting in this single scene, all with his eyes and almost totally without dialogue. On Jutra's part as the director, I see it as an exquisite personal admission of guilt and complicity on the part of the director; here, after all, we have the film's director willing himself into a just prosecution in precarious courtroom of a bedroom hallway -- i.e. "everyone in Québéc at this time in some way contributes to the tensions and problems like those depicted in the film, either by direct action or by complacency." There is a boldness in this staging and the arrangement of the film's action that is thrilling. This is a call to action.
The stage is being set throughout the film for a shattering final image, in which Benoit looks through the window and into what I like to call a "twisted Nativity" scene of a family gathered all around a casket on Christmas morning, mourning the death of its eldest son. Much like the end of Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups (it should be noted that Jutra and Truffaut were friends), the film freeze-frames on Benoit peering through the window as he observes and digests a bitter pill of truth about the faulty world in which he lives, awakening from the dream now with an eye towards questioning what comes his way. At one point in the film, Duplessis is explicitly mentioned, albeit in graffiti on the wall of a public john.
This ending proves that the political can be poetic, and that bold political statements can emerge from the roots of a delicate story without total and immediate manifestation of its political objective. This is what the lauded "overtly political" Québécois films of the time seemed to lack profoundly. This is not to blithely be pejorative of a film like Arcand's Rejeanne Padovani, which is excellent on its own terms, although the pointedness of its political discourse is nothing that could reasonably be called novel. "Political cinema" is very much like mental rape to me (with filmmakers like documentarian Emile di Antonio excepted), and I often find it to be a kind of intellectual pollution, as your thought processes are compromised by a crafted manipulation of the status quo in an effort to call a viewer's attention towards truths that have been negotiated through shallow artifice. It's also an opportunity for an artist to perpetrate him/herself as chic, on which grounds, for instance, Jean-Luc Godard's most fervent critics assailed him, especially when entering his Maoist period. Here, at last, is a piece of political cinema that transcends and, in a sense, becomes not just transcendent, but transcendentalist.
"Le pauvre québécois, (The poor Québécois,)
Découragé, saigné à froid, (Discouraged, bled cold,)
Gagna son toit par le châssis (Its roof by the frame gained)
Et s'y pendit. (And hung itself there.)"
-Felix LeClerc (1914-1988), Québécois songwriter, "La québécois"
Around the time Jutra was shooting Mon Oncle Antoine in Black Lake, Québéc found itself in the throes of the 1970 October Crisis, a series of events triggered by the twin kidnappings of government officials by members of the Front de liberation du Québéc, which had detonated a total of 95 bombs between the years of 1963 and 1970. The October Crisis was one of the few times in Canadian history when martial law seemed to rule, and civil liberties violations became the most prevalent. Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, spurred the chain of events by compelling the first peacetime enacting of the War Measures Act, and the widespread deployment of Canadian troops resulted. The Canadian military arrested and detained 497 individuals without bail. Every one of these individuals, except 62, were later released without charges.
There was little Jutra could do to inject impassioned polemics about Québéc's tremulous status quo into the material in Mon Oncle Antoine, although that did not stop certain francophone audiences and critics from censuring the film for an alleged lack of political conscience. Many seemed to hold by the opinion that the film was simply too immersed in a deluded nostalgia dream to be fully cognizant of what was happening around the time of its creation. The film's success in English Canada did not bode well either, for (as Martin Knelman noted) Jutra was in the embarrassing position of being English Canada's favorite French-Canadian filmmaker. However, if Mon Oncle Antoine elicited the original suspicion of a wayward political aversion in Jutra's work, then his follow-up Kamouraska did nothing but outright confirm it for them. What they got was an opulent literary adaptation, the likes of which were not at all a commonality in the cinema of Canada. Although critic John Hofsess made the claim that Kamouraska is apolitical, he added that the film "couldn't have been made anywhere in Canada except Québéc" and that its "psychic roots" are deeply embedded there.
I should note that I saw Kamouraska on VHS in its full 174-minute director's cut, prepared later for a television broadcast in 1983, a full decade after the film's aborted Canadian and French premiere. The original theatrical version ran a truncated 124 minutes. The full unexpurgated cut is sometimes shown on a 35mm print in Québéc but, to my knowledge, has never been screened in the United States. Kamouraska, which was co-produced (with Québéc's Carle-Lamy Productions) by Parc Film in France, functions in very much the same way as Mon Oncle Antoine with its delicate, poetical political implications and, from my perspective, an obvious reading of the film is an allegorical one. Elisabeth Tassy, played by Genevieve Bujold in what is widely regarded as her best-ever onscreen performance, enlists the help of her American-born lover, whose first language is of course English, to murder her husband, the Lord Squire of Kamouraska. When, after a few weeks of marital bliss, Antoine reveals his true self, a "live-in rapist" slob of overwhelming ill manner, Elisabeth becomes the lover of a rugged American-born nobleman named George Nelson.
Genevieve Bujold gives what is, without a doubt, the performance of her career in this film, and she has never been better in any single film before or since. Martin Knelman also holds this position as he has remained one of the film's key defenders, and even was so at a time when that allegiance was a rather unpopular one. Bujold won the Best Actress award at the Canadian Film Awards that year, but the film managed to just slip away in a manner that was almost unprecedented, despite its high profile and the inexorable status it held as a truly major production (the most expensive Canadian production in history up to that time). I can only think of the later American film Heaven's Gate to compare. That similarly epic film's own history of aborted release, its pull from theaters, its recut, its disappearing act and its re-emergence in full glory is extremely analogous to Kamouraska, which predated Heaven's Gate by a full seven years. Both films were eventually restored to their original director's-cut lengths.
Kamouraska marked the end of an era for Jutra, who discontinued his longtime working relationship with cinematographer Michel Brault (a filmmaker in his own right, responsible for the landmark documentaries Pour la suite du monde and Les ordres) after shooting wrapped. Reasons for the termination are unknown even to Brault, but his work on Kamouraska is textbook beautiful camerawork and lighting. Also important to note is that, in a political move, Bujold declined accepting her award for Best Actress at the Canadian Film Awards, claiming that she was standing by Jutra and his crew when they opposed the unification of Quebec.
Jutra's previously mentioned 1980 feature Surfacing is a film could have been absolutely brilliant, considering Surfacing author Margaret Atwood's similarly delicate "poetically political" touch and her feminist perspective on Canadian national identity; considering Atwood's stance, one must also keep in mind that Kamouraska revealed Jutra's gifts for entering a female psyche on film. The mind boggles to think what it could have been had Jutra been allowed to revise the script to his liking before it was locked for shooting. Jutra was brought in to replace another director and most of the elements of pre-production were already well in play.
Unfortunately, at the time, the Canadian film industry was beginning to show signs of buckling and bowing to trends which pandered shamelessly to U.S. film marketing demands (as I will discuss later in depth), so the film became a victim of a tampering blitzkrieg that limited the scope of its identity as a Canadian film, with all the fascinating, rich "baggage" that carries. Considering the source material, the adaptation's inherently Canadian identity must have proven difficult to mask for the producers. Jutra's creative hand was thus limited because of that and other reasons, and compromises unfortunately exist throughout. As it is, the film is average with flashes of brilliance that are all too intermittent.
At the first level, what makes Surfacing more exceptional above the other cases of this "Americanization backlash" occurring in Canadian productions is its deft approach to its setting: Jutra enters the Northern wilderness world unassumingly, without looking to recklessly define it, even though more certainly could have been done in fully realizing the land's potential in the story. Knowing Jutra's and Atwood's aptitude for being poetically political, the film's political stance is nowhere to be truly discerned, except through especially deep and exacting analysis. Jutra is known to have said in the wake of Kamouraska's original failure, "For us, a hundred years ago is prehistory. It is before everything." Surfacing's characters are partly in search of the prehistoric petroglyphs for which the main character's missing father had been searching, and, at the denouement, this father's ultimate revealed death in his search for Canada's "prehistory" is at the film's soft and distracted political center.
However, all this said, the "spirit of Claude" still presides over the whole affair and an artistic presence is felt even amidst the tragic compromises of its production. At a time of American tax-shelter films, it was a definitive example of a thumb-itching need to appeal to American marketing sensibilities (including the casting of American actors in the leads) and a drive towards a brandedly American financial excess that led to Surfacing's streamlined final product. The film failed to appeal to pretty much anyone, including Americans and especially Canadians. His final two films, By Design and La dame en coleurs (shot in French in Québéc, an appropriate swan song), ushered in a slight but ultimately feeble redemption for the frustrated master. Jutra, ultimately, was a man whose mind might as well have been sliced in half by the English/French Canada borderline.
"Une autre vie est là pour nous, (Another life is there for us,)
Ouverte à toute âme fidèle: (Open to any faithful soul:)
Bien tard, hélas! à deux genoux, (Although late, alas! on two knees,)
Je rêve d'elle!" (I dream of it!)"
-Louis-Honore Fréchette (1839-1908), Québécois poet, songwriter, "Le rêve de la vie"
Jutra's life did not end happily. The victim of early-onset Alzheimer's Disease, Jutra committed suicide by jumping into the St. Lawrence River in late 1986, only to be found five months later when the river thawed, with a sign around his neck reading, "Je suis Claude Jutra" ("I am Claude Jutra"). It was with that chilling, tragic farewell that Canada and Québéc lost one of its most distinguished artists (and one of its most frustrated), a little more than a year after his American avatar, Orson Welles, succumbed to an unknown illness. His impact on the national cinema, or what there was and is of one, cannot be underestimated. What is key to consider and ponder, however, is Jutra's role in lassoing and valiantly maintaining a Canadian identity in his cinema. For those who argue in favor of his considerable influence, it was perhaps the first time a Canadian national identity in its cinema could be acknowledged. His best work is unmistakably Canadian, and even his more dubious work bears a Canadian stamp. Few if any can undermine the value and enduring impact of his masterpiece Mon Oncle Antoine. Jim Leach, in his 1999 book Claude Jutra: Filmmaker, the first comprehensive study of Jutra's work, writes, "Jutra's problems were hardly unique in the history of Canadian cinema, but this only made it easier to think that his 'sad fade-out' was less a personal response to a medical condition than a symptom of a cultural condition."
"There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.
Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.
Helpless, helpless, helpless."
-Neil Young (1945-present), Canadian songwriter, "Helpless"
Donald Shebib: The Margins Aren't Nowhere
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.
Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.
Helpless, helpless, helpless."
-Neil Young (1945-present), Canadian songwriter, "Helpless"
Donald Shebib: The Margins Aren't Nowhere
Donald Shebib scored a critical and commercial knockout in 1970 with his micro-budget independent film Goin' Down the Road, and it is a work that still remains canonical in the annals of Canuck cinema. It is difficult to think of other Canadian works that are quite as high on the canon as this landmark drama shot with never more than four people on crew on 16mm on a $19,000 CFDC grant and the director's personal savings. Its reputation is comparable even to that of Mon Oncle Antoine, which is apt because it embodies the Ontario/Maritimer identity in Canada the way Antoine embodies the Québéc identity. Shebib, however, never scored another success to even nearly equal that of this, his first feature. What sets this a notch above the rest is its place in the national cinema as its been delineated here, and the certainty of its Canadian identity. If we are making pale comparisons to American films, various critics made a point of branding it the Canadian Midnight Cowboy. This parallel is grossly obvious, imprudent and uncomfortable. The film has a dedicated reality that could only be the result of non-professional actors like the ones in the film being directed into miraculously near-flawless performances. In the leads, unknowns Paul Bradley and Doug McGrath (who has the voice of Robert Blake and the face of a failed Steve McQueen impersonator) star as Maritimer buddies Joey and Pete, two buddies from Nova Scotia who pack up and wheel into Toronto on the 1960 Chevy version of a wing and a prayer, in search of a better life. On the doors of the dilapidated Chevy are the hand-painted words "My Nova Scotia Home". The story, of course, sounds perfectly familiar -- but observations of how customized and tailor-made the story is, all in an effort to examine the sad state of affairs revolving around the lifetime relegation of the marginalized (specifically Maritimers) to anonymous humiliation and thankless positions in society.
There is a 1972 television interview with Shebib from The Pierre Burton Show included on my DVD of Goin' Down the Road, in which the filmmaker unabashedly admits to being "turned off" by the act of reading and claims to have been largely television-educated, as he deems reading mostly a source of fatigue, even though his knowledge of pre-1940's classic films is encyclopedic and his appreciation of history seems exceedingly impressive. Even though the screenplay of Goin' Down the Road is credited to William Fruet (who would pen Shebib's follow-up film Rip-Off, then make his directorial debut with the excellent Wedding in White), one senses that the earthiness and salt-of-the-earth qualities of Pete and Joey are a direct result of Shebib's natural directing ability to color brightly within the fine edges of Fruet's outline drawing. I think of Texan-American independent filmmaker Eagle Pennell's approach in films like the extremely similar The Whole Shootin' Match (1977) and Last Night at the Alamo (1983). Shebib's film and The Whole Shootin' Match are quite similar because they are both ultra low-rent buddy films, but never pander to expectations of what buddy film are and/or should be.
The performances in Shebib's grand debut possess a snappy level of folksy, gloriously unpretentious, down-to-earth repartee that is difficult if not impossible to write to this degree. Knelman writes, "[the characters] are forced to exist as freaks in a [Toronto] ghetto culture for displaced Maritimers" where they "cannot blend into the background." The personal, and uniquely Canadian, implications of the story thus become poetically political. It is almost a poetic justice, then, that this anglophone film that does for the Maritime what the poetically political Mon Oncle Antoine does for northern Québéc is ranked together with the latter francophone work as one of the great Canadian films of all time.
"Everybody knows this is nowhere."
The most point-blank way to say it: This film is a Canadian Film tried and true, and Shebib's NFB documentary experience shows. Our remarkably real protagonists suffer great indignities at the proverbial hands of the dehumanizing Toronto, which is forwardly intolerant of "their type of animal," and we empathize so much so with them that, amazingly enough, we can almost condone the two going on the run from a petty crime that ends in violence with Joey leaving his pregnant wife behind at the end of the picture...well, to any extent by which that choice can be condoned. The film itself is about indignity in its very nature, suffered at the hands of "backwater folks" on the fringes of dehumanized, rapidly Americanizing cities. We watch how the boys, with only $26 to their name, are reduced to working in a bottling factory upon their decidedly untriumphant arrival. Plans have fallen through and dreams are drying up fast. Whereas Joey observes that they made more money in the bottle factor than they ever did in their Nova Scotia home, that is not enough to reassure Pete's hardening cynicism. They find their only true solace in the French-Canadian secretary of the factory-owner, who provocatively struts her way past the "charmingly primitive" working stiffs.
To use a favorite quote, from Robinson Jeffers, "Pleasure is the carrot dangled to lead the ass to market; or the precipice." Pete and Joey start off hungering for the precipice and end up gracelessly settling for the carrot. And then that carrot gets taken away.
Interestingly, Shebib's follow-up film Rip-Off looks at the flipside -- as Knelman puts it, that film is about people who have "the social advantages that Pete and Joey were victimized for their lack of," who "can't live up to what the media says their lives should be." I admittedly have not seen this particular film, but I know that responses to it were somewhat hushed. Shebib, however, seems to know that their are discontents on both sides of the coin, and duly highlights this point in what I have seen of his later work (including 1973's Between Friends, 1976's Second Wind and 1981's Heartaches).
I hold by the theory that it was thanks to Goin' Down the Road that later films like The Rowdyman (1972, the first film ever to be shot in Newfoundland), Paperback Hero (1973, shot in Saskatchewan) and The Hard Part Begins (1974, shot in southern Ontario) emerged as portraits of quixotic figures in small, hidden-away Canadian hamlets -- all with dreams of mobility in all that word's connotations. For Jim Leach, this group of films explored "the tension between American dreams and Canadian reality," though I disagree with him when he claims that these films are simply "distinctive inflections of Hollywood models." None of these three really measure up to the success and lasting shelf-life of their paragon of a predecessor, but Goin' Down the Road is a tough act to follow and all are worthy follow-ups and filmmaker responses to the literal overnight smash-success of Shebib's film. It is perhaps fair to say that Shebib's film awakened the flame in Canadian filmmakers hailing from remote parts of all the provinces. Below you can view the visually rich opening sequence of Goin' Down the Road, which was shot partly by acclaimed Black Stallion filmmaker Carroll Ballard, with legendary Ontario cinematographer Richard Leiterman (the brother-in-law of Allan King) credited solely as cameraman.
Shebib, by the looks of things, is preparing a sequel to Goin' Down the Road forty years after the original, entitled Down the Road Again, which is scheduled for release in 2011. He never again hit the triumph of his glorious debut and, in 1981, directed what could accurately be described as the female version of his hit, entitled Heartaches, starring Canadian-born Margot Kidder and Annie Potts. This film has moments of greatness, but fails to reach the heights previously achieved. One of the more intriguing works in his filmography is a film that he wrote, the World War II-set Wedding in White (1972), directed by Goin' Down the Road's screenwriter William Fruet, and starring Carol Kane, Donald Pleasence and Road alumnus Doug McGrath. Again, with this film we have another compelling story of marginalization and cruel relegation, this time not to a pair of disenfranchised country boys or working stiffs, but to the teenage daughter of a working stiff who finds herself raped, pregnant and about to be married off to a dirty old man in an emergency wedding to save and preserve her family's reputation.
Whereas Claude Jutra operates within the scope of history with great freedom, a filmmaker like Donald Shebib operates within the cages of a cold modernity with the same freedom, and both are equally valid. What is astounding to realize is that there is certainly reciprocity between the two artists' output.
"Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love."
-Leonard Cohen (1934-present), Québécois songwriter
Frank Vitale: Valence Readings
The comprehensive nature of my exploration of Canadian cinema really started with the film Montreal Main (1974) back in August 2010. I was just starting to embark on my own feature-length film at the time and Montreal Main, directed by Frank Vitale, provided a boon and a true source of inspiration for me. A true work of self-reliance in filmmaking which looks and feels impressive by sheer virtue of its collaborative verve, Montreal Main opens with a byline which credits the entire cast with its creation. Right away, it starts with an impressively honest and thrilling admission to the entire cast's complicity in its brilliance. Shot on 16mm on a miraculous original budget of $17,000 (with $45,000 awarded later by CFDC for the film's completion), the film later premiered at the Whitney Museum in New York and is now considered something of (at least) a mini-masterpiece of Canadian cinema. The film follows photographer Frank (director Frank Vitale) and his motley crew of mostly gay male artist friends who live in the lower-rent part of Montreal's Main, as well as their acquaintances, the hip Sutherland clan, who live in the more residential, middle-class suburban part of the Main. Photographer Frank, who along with his friend Bozo (future director Allan Moyle) considers himself straight, becomes obsessed with the Sutherlands' 13-year-old son Johnny. The relationship is innocuous, mostly innocent and something of a paper tiger, which is proportionate to the film's understated approach to all of its material. Nothing really much happens in the central relationship in terms of direct action, but this relationship simply provides a catalyst. What is so brilliant, though, is that, in similar works about a man's adoration of a beautiful, innocent young one, like Death in Venice and Lolita, the author rarely if ever navigates the audience in an attempt to understand the other side of the equation, that is, the object of the lead character's desire, at least in any real psychological depth. Whereas it was more immaterial to those works, in Montreal Main, we are driven towards an attempt to understand the sexual confusion and ambivalence of the 13-year-old Johnny, and sometimes it even becomes more central than the sexual confusion of Frank. It is a film of attempts, often failed attempts as it bravely bows to the inherent complexity of the circumstances, but that does not make it any less penetrating. We know that, in some sense, the two fall in love with each other, but the substance of the relationship is beguilingly never clarified. There is a beautiful delicate balance and a kind of equilibrium achieved in this deceptively subtle tipping of the scales.
Montreal Main's sexual ambivalence continues a "grand history" of films in Canada with delicately handled homosexual subtext, and the delicate handling is salient and quite striking, and this feature is perhaps the only overt aspect of the film. Claude Jutra's A tout prendre (1963) and David Secter's Winter Kept Us Warm (1964) took great risks in confronting the subject of homosexuality on film at a time when it was even more taboo -- and also during the Canadian-cinema-as-we-know-it's infancy. The delicacy of the path and approach in those two early films, however, is more than a circuitous attempt to remain tasteful. There is a Canadian identity to be discerned when looking at Montreal Main, which was produced a decade after A tout prendre and Winter Kept Us Warm; it is not just that the dichotomy of Montreal's Main is as much of a character in the film as the people on display, but it is also, in a way, about Canada's ambivalence to its own persona, generally and in terms of its cinema. It often appears that Canadian cinema does not know what it wants to be. Montreal Main's characters do not truly know the inner workings of their own desires and, if they do, they are afraid of them and cower themselves away in some way, thus it is a "film of attempts" and ambivalence, ultimately emerging as a definitive Canadian film, and certainly one of the most artful the country has ever seen.
Also of note is the fact that Vitale, in his editing, masterfully mingles the rawness and immediacy of its stretches of verité-style performance with other exquisite, well-observed sequences that are almost Hitchcockian in terms of framing and montage-rooted tension-building (e.g. the scene involving Frank snooping his way through the Sutherlands' upstairs rooms). At every point, the audience is asking the questions it should be asking, not just about the film but about the frightening realms of the intensely personal we often dare not traverse, and about the people we hold close to us. I immediately watched the film again after my first viewing because I wanted to be taken back there and made to ask myself those questions again. There is also the clear admiration that Vitale has for his characters, who are all played by his friends. You feel Vitale's love for them to the extent that it fuels a desire to discover them more fully, even though they can be occasionally vexing, scary and often petty.
Montreal Main was resurrected just two years ago, restored (by Concordia University's School of Cinema and the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada) and given a series of screenings at various venues in various parts of Canada and the U.S. Even though the film scored with most critics, Vitale admitted to me that he did not know from where the suddenly renewed interest in the film was being generated. "I've asked academics about the film's new reputation, but I never quite get what they are telling me," he laughs. When I asked Vitale on the phone about his feelings about the film's relationship and strong bond to other earlier, similar Canadian works like Winter Kept Us Warm, he admitted, much to my fascination, to never having seen it.
Vitale followed Montreal Main with 1976's East End Hustle, a pulpy but somehow intelligently campy exploitation-type thriller also shot in Montreal, which seems a radical departure from the quiet, deliberate quality of his debut, but it is certainly a fascinating choice and I personally applaud going in new directions. Vitale, in our conversation, admitted to being embarrassed by that film now, stating, "I just wanted to make a film that would return its cost so that I could make another film after that. But the drive to make it was really practice. I wanted to learn how to make a regular film with a script and actors and all that. I realized after Montreal Main's critical success that I had not developed any standard dramatic filmmaking skills. East End Hustle's small following must be a result of the film's current distributor, Troma. That's the only thing I can think of to explain it."
Montreal Main also stars Allan "Bozo" Moyle, who went on to become a director in his own right, and who also appeared in Outrageous! (1977), another milestone in Canadian queer cinema. Moyle directed his first film, The Rubber Gun, which featured many alumni from Montreal Main. Moyle went on to direct films like the underrated Times Square (1980) and the fine Christian Slater-fueled youth movie Pump Up the Volume (1990), both in the United States.
Allan King: Canada's Reality Trip
Allan King was among a class of documentarians who exploited the elasticity of the form in ways that few other filmmakers dared at the time, coining the term "actuality drama" to denote the type of documentary film he patented. Known most for the trio of early "actuality drama" films Warrendale (1967), A Married Couple (1969) and Come On Children (1972), King would soon after bundle his direct-cinema documentary experience temporarily under his arm to helm a series of theatrical features, like the Depression-set saga Who Has Seen the Wind? (1977), the well-budgeted Universal picture Silence of the North (1981), shot in Canada's Northwest Territory and starring Ellen Burstyn, and Termini Station (1989), starring Colleen Dewhurst, before recently returning to his "actuality drama" roots with the digital-video works Dying at Grace (2003) and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005).
On the surface, the original three actuality dramas are direct cinema documentaries ostensibly in the tradition of Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles. What distinguishes King's work from those, however, is that King's films are even more about levels of performance. When I say performance, I am not merely suggesting the illusion that documentary subjects place in front of the camera as either filtered or juicier projections of themselves, nor am I explicitly speaking anything concerning the oxymoronic term "documentary reality," even though elements like this get peripherally explored in King's work. Like Frederick Wiseman's films, King's explore the inner workings of institutions, and an obvious analogy one might perceive is Warrendale to Wiseman's Titticut Follies, simply on the basis of subject matter. Critics of the time observed delightedly how Billy and Antoinette Edwards, the married couple of A Married Couple, were "wonderful performers." What is fascinating is that we get a portrait of King's given institution as theater and, with that in mind, there is reason why the term "actuality drama" is used in lieu of "cinema-verite documentary," and King's term is not the straining shibboleth some seem to feel it is. But King's films do belie the documentary classification.
The films are often structured to accommodate a narrative arc that fosters and heightens the classic drama inherent in their documentary platform; it is not an ordinary kind of arc. This was even more unusual and innovative then, when King customized and patented the technique, than it is today, as most of the verite documentaries of the time relied largely on a looser, more instinctual essayist brand of observational style in which it was the particular building of a message or a tonal perpetuation that most dictated the direction of the ultimate piece during the editing stage.
As Canadian film scholar and critic Robin Wood claims, "Through his unfiltered view and the way he pushes the boundaries of confined temporality and space, King allows life to progress unhindered by sentiment." Considering the claim I made just prior, Wood would suggest that the freeing of the material from a fiction filmmaker's customary imposed subjective investment opens the film up at both ends and allows it to breathe more than either an actual dramatic work of fiction or a documentary about the same subject would. And, at the same time, the works are not objective either. Ultimately, the suggestion I make about the plasticity of its narrative formalism renders, for me, King's form an entirely new one, neither true documentary nor constructed fiction.
Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company, for one, almost plays like a multi-character ensemble drama. King never shanghais the novelty of watching constructed actuality on the screen by staging interviews or inserting voice-overs (omniscient or otherwise) of any kind. Warrendale, A Married Couple and Come On Children also nix the formal interview format, respectively examining a home for troubled youth, the marriage nest and a communal house of free-spirited teenagers, with the latter of the three being the only created environment/institution. Frederick Wiseman examined similar institutions in another way entirely. To quote Wiseman about his own work, "I’m interested in how institutions reflect the larger cultural hues, so that, in a sense, is like tracking the abominable snowman; in the sense that you’re looking for cultural spoors wherever you go. You find traces of them in the institutions." Adam Nayman, in his recent essay about Allan King, writes:
"Like his contemporary Frederick Wiseman, King spoke about doing the majority of his work before the cameras rolled, inveigling his way into his subjects’ environment and getting a sense of its rhythms, and then handing things over to his crew. 'It’s like casing the joint,' he told me. King’s films are indeed rife with stolen moments, and yet one never feels (as one sometimes does with Wiseman) that anything is being taken away from the people on screen."
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART THREE with The Simulated Shtetl: The Canadian-Jewish Identity Microcosm Informing the Canadian Cinema Macrocosm